Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Freeze frames

WE can see for kilometres in every direction. All is ice -- before us unfolds a fantastical white desert, a frozen plain punctuated by snow-covered, bizarrely shaped hummocks, rising metres high.

The vista could be the landscape of an alien, frozen planet. Except that it moves.

Vast blocks of the horizon rise, ever so slowly, ever so slightly, above an adjoining section.

The effect is slightly giddying and reminds us that this is not land, but ocean -- the Southern Ocean, as few have seen it. The 54-passenger, Russian-crewed polar expeditionary ship Akademik Shokalskiy has sailed into a rare and impenetrable band of ice, 145km wide and even longer. This formidable frozen chastity belt is the result of a number of large icebergs trapping sea ice that would normally flow westerly across the east Antarctic coastline.

It is denying us our wicked way, which was intended to take us into Commonwealth Bay, home to Mawson's huts. Among the passengers there is an undercurrent of disappointment and some mumbles of dissent. The Aurora Expeditions staff -- a mix of Aussies, Poms and Kiwis, as amiable as they are professional -- has been exemplary. But just how do you deal with 50 people who have paid thousands of dollars only to be told on the doorstop of their destination, after 12 days of voyaging, that their main objective can't be reached?

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